Saturday, March 26, 2011

One Word: Memetics

A big Spring shout out from the CRITICAL NOISE Aural Intelligence Blog to say thank you to all its readers for making CRITICAL NOISE The #1 Music Memetics Blog in the world.

Apparently there are a few others out there as deeply interested in the interstices of music, message and marketing as I am.

So, after ten years in the making, it's nice when someone points out that you've reached the top of Mt. Google writing about a subject you devote a lot of time and study to. It gives one reason to pause, reflect and imbibe. So, cheers! It is Saturday, after all.

In related news, congratulations again to the UK's Annalisa Kumi for her popular and deeply interesting SAE thesis on the subject: AN AD FOR ADVERTISERS: SONIC BRANDING AND THE EVOLUTION OF MUSIC IN ADVERTISING. I first mentioned her paper on my twitter feed, but lately I've noticed it's been the 2011 consistently #1 ranked site on the topic of Sonic Branding. Hooray for her and maybe she should think about starting her own consultancy.

I'm simply happy that my own 2001 article on Sonic Branding, BRANDING WITH AUDIO can be counted as one of her sources.

More recently: If you haven't already, please check out the March 25, 2011 SHOOT magazine for my article regarding the decline of traditional scoring and the ascent of Music Design in television advertising ( SOUND: MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER). SHOOT is the nation's leading resource of its kind providing news and information to and about "creative and production decision-makers at ad agencies, and executives & artisans in the production industry", and it's honor to have an article published in a nationally distributed journal.

In the meantime, back to our regular programming, but first, to paraphrase a famous line from the film THE GRADUATE:

One word: 'Memetics'.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Sound: More Important Than Ever

Ten years ago I published a an article in Shoot exploring the possibilities of how new media platforms might influence post production audio artisans. A decade later, here's the follow up.

Sound: More Important Than Ever

By Terry O'Gara
Originally Published in Shoot Magazine, March 25, 2011

At the close of 2000, I was among several members of the ad community enlisted by SHOOT to imagine what the coming decade might bring. In "The 2001 Challenge" I described how changing technologies might impact Audio Solutions. Among the things I got right, I suggested, "Tomorrow your projects will cross all platforms." But the truth is, that wasn't prophecy because by then I'd already jumped into interactive. I could not have predicted, however, that with all the advances in music technology, the sound of a $5 toy horn called a "Vuvuzela," would a decade later captivate the world and exemplify the new century's strongest example yet of sonic branding.

I also proposed that with the definition of "TV" expanding, the definition of "Composer" should also evolve. But today, even though many of us have retooled our studios, I'm not so sure that many of us have rewired our process. Advertising isn't what it was, so why treat a spot from 2011 the way you would one from '01? Have things changed that much? I think they have. For instance, did you notice, a funny thing happened on the way to the Internet? Everything downsized: Budgets, rosters and earnings. I've read attention spans have also diminished. But I don't think that's necessarily true, because there's plenty of evidence–from Amazon to Zinio–that people still crave good story experience.

Nevertheless, marketers have initiated a defense some call "Direct Branding," i.e. cut, cropped and full frontal message. I've come to think of these increasingly nano-sized communications as less story constructions than an extension of the art of Gesture. And in case you didn't notice, one result of this trend is the very real decline of traditional Film Scoring, and the ascent of Music Design.

Make no mistake, I mourn the elegant :60 cast aside in favor of the svelte, more energetic :15. But score treatments suddenly seem to lack the efficacy they once had to command undivided attention. Even scores won through competitive demoing, theoretically insuring awesomeness, lack immunity from the infectious disinterest of the texting, twittering masses. It used to be TV was accused of turning people into zombies. Now it's the other way around, and we're in the position of trying to reach out to a wireless, oft jaded demographic and make them feel something. But little can prevent a man with a remote from using it.

But there's good news: inventive gestures cut through media clutter, consolidate focus and even direct multitaskers engaged with a secondary device to look up, notice and listen. Marshall McLuhan said, "The medium is the message." The phrase never fails to foster thought, but it may be that today that message is actually the medium. And if that's the case, then what is required of the modern sonic artisan is not so much mere musical enhancement but audio that capably provides thrust to a client's message.

Certainly, there will always be a need for scores that support story or evoke feeling. However, increasingly more critical is the fulfillment of a marketing objective with sonic solutions that trigger immediate brand signification.

Which means, even at the cusp of another new game changing paradigm, the intelligent application of sound is more important than ever.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Commercial music composition for advertising, film and other media is often created from a model, sometimes called a ‘scratch’ or ‘temp’ track. But even music created for purely 'artistic purposes' conforms to the dictates of external format. II–V–I, anybody? IV–I? Are you going to stay clear of two of the most popular chord progressions because they've been used before? Probably not. It would be a bit like saying one is going to embargo vowels because the letters 'a', 'e', 'i', 'o' and 'u' all represent phonetic clichés. We don't even abandon real clichés because despite their lack of originality, they may still nevertheless represent a truism. At the very least, they may be employed as useful shorthand in our daily and informal communication.

For purposes of media commissions, modeling can be extremely useful for many reasons –direction and budget estimation to name two. That said, the practice also comes with an inherent possibility of producing a mediocre derivate, not to mention risk of plagiarizing the source, whether by inadvertent or intentional action.

This begs the question:

Can a copy ever equal or surpass the original?

Or can it even just simply exist as an enjoyable and entertaining alternate to the source from which it is born?

Naturally it depends how one defines 'copy'. In the present case we mean a derivative work, but not necessarily a variation on a source as the word is commonly used, especially in a pejorative sense. Rather, our definition of Derivative is more closely aligned with the way the term is used in mathematics, being "a measure of how a function changes as its input changes..."

Anyway, the answer as it turns out is an unequivocal 'Yes'. And as a matter of fact, it happens all the time. For instance, take The Beatles, relative to every other single band that followed them, and which claim the Fab Four as a direct inspiration. Or at the other end of the audio spectrum, take free form jazz and ask yourself how free it actually is once you understand 'the rules' players employ that enjoy expressing themselves within that format. Free it may be, but complete and unintelligible audio anarchy, rarely, which it would have to be, of course, if it actually were free.

But how then is it possible that the collective works of any specific genre can claim originality from one other when they might all be formed from the same creative building blocks?

Thousands of blues songs, for instance, share nearly identical melodic licks without one being considered a copy or infringement of another. Compare Texas' Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Baby Please Don’t Go” to Chicago's Muddy Waters' “Mannish Boy.” Each work is wholly original even if both remain identifiable as blues based. So, the two tunes can't be completely unique; they must share some commonalities –those things that make these blues a uniquely American blues, despite regional idiosyncrasies, and not, say Central Asian khuumii, which is also, arguably, a blues of another independently formed and Asiatic kind.

Similarly, ‘Simple Simon Met a Pie Man…’, ‘Johnny had a little Dog…’, ‘Yankee Doodle went to town…’, when sung, do not possess identical melodies, but all three share strikingly similar musical DNA making each immediately recognizable as a children’s song.

I have often asked myself: When a group of works share they same style, what does that mean?

Likewise, when comparing two works that share creative building blocks:

Where does originality end and plagiarism begin?

–A lot closer in music than in prose, I imagine, for while the adoption of one unacknowledged sentence maybe considered intellectual theft by most who learn of it, the appropriation and practice of an entire catalog of licks and executions by those who love a certain genre is arguably what makes a given popular musician one kind of stylist and not another.

That said, there is a practice today, among mash up artists to layer one popular musical work over another. The resulting audio collage can generate a potentially new musical experience, but it is as often implemented as a kind of postmodern Critical Theory litmus test, in order to demonstrate, arguably, the bereft inspiration of one artist or another.

But the truth is, unlike language, music's combinations are limited. That's not simply my opinion, by the way; that's actually the way the math works out.

The Math of Originality

How many words are there in the English language?

As of this writing, the English language hovers at around one million words, and its speakers might generate new words every day (although what eventually makes it into the common lexicon is another story).

On the other hand, the Key of C contains 7 notes. Likewise the Key of G. And there are only 12 major and 12 minor keys to work with. Naturally, there are various ways to define or modify a key, so that one might reasonably suggest that there are more than 12 options available to us. Regardless, barring the wholesale adoption of a completely different theory of music in the west, then the melodic permutations –however you define them– are not endless, especially when we limit potential combinations to useful combinations, and then further limit those results to pleasing combinations.

So, guess how many notes are contained in the twelve-tone system of equal temperament employed in the composition of every single musical work in the western canon in the last 300 hundred years?

Well, that would be 12, because this widely used system of which we are long accustomed divides the octave into exactly 12 parts.

Useful Musical Combinations

Granted, octaves repeat at higher and lower frequencies, so that a grand piano (and the cumulative range of all musical instruments) generally affords us about 8 octaves of pitch choices. On a piano, that adds up to 88 piano keys. Therefore, allowing for repetition of any given note, we have at our disposal over a billion melodic combinations, which almost sounds like the number of melodies out there to be conjured up is infinite.

But if we relegate all similarly named notes equal value regardless of frequency, and ignore repetitions or eliminations, then there are just less than five hundred million musical permutations allowed. By this I mean, we say C1, C2, C3, etc and C1-C1, C2-C2, C3-C3, etc all serve to indicate the same note, C, so that a given sequence of pitches –a melody– composed from a chromatic scale and then transposed in parallel fashion to another key or octave can not be considered wholly unique from the original melodic placement.

Similarly, 'Pop Goes The Weasel' is still Pop Goes The Weasel' whether it is performed in C at the lower range of a marimba or whether it is played in Bb at the upper range of a trumpet, and regardless of what harmonic choices might support it, and not two or more distinct melodies.

Granted 500 million options is still a pretty big number, but when was the last time significantly large populations chilled out for any substantial length of time to 12-tone compositions? Or even a room full of people? Right, on a historical time line that begins in 1700 and stretches to infinity, the answer is closer to never than most fans of Serialism would care to admit.

More commonly, the music of the masses as it has been composed in the west for the last 300 years is produced by various arrangements of the diatonic scale, being the 7 distinct notes which express a common key. These seven notes can be considered the most 'useful' pitch options available to us because audiences generally find them pleasing, and the number of permutations they provide is just over 5000.

Personally, I would be quite surprised to learn if four or five hundred years after the invention of the equal temperament system, not each and every 7-note combination had been employed already. In fact, I think it's closer to the truth to assume that prolific composers and improvisational musicians cycle through every single one of these combinations on a rather frequent basis.

So, obviously, musicians appropriate from one another –and themselves!– and they do it all the time, not to mention every single time someone takes a solo. In fact, they have no choice in the matter, or there would be no music. Such sourcing and re-arranging of pre-existing elements does not indicate a meager imagination, because in the hands of a capable talent other parameters come into play which allow for infinite variability, prominent among them being 'Time' and 'Feeling'.

And in fact, it is also by this process that styles and genres are born and also how traditions stay alive.

Which is not to say originality can never be achieved, but generally what we strive for when we compose a new work in an existing idiom is a new expression born from familiar materials and performed within an existing set of rules, conventions or framework, and not something sprung out of a new theory (unless that is our task, and if it is, well, good luck winning mass appeal (or even a single client) with that). It is hard enough to get people who live on opposite sides of the same planet (and sometimes even the same couch) to appreciate, much less enjoy, each other's music.

And God help the drummer attempting to hold on to his or her so-called trademark beats, because each nifty new rhythm will without a doubt become the bed of every single Jamaican pop song by next summer’s end, and not a judge on the planet will hear evidence, complaint or accusation of intellectual property theft.

Beats, once born, belong to everybody. Not always melody, though.

Generating Clones or Producing Original Kindred Works?

Whether literally or intuitively, media composers face a similar issues whenever they subject a temp track to analysis. For them, the question is not how to clone a copy, but how to reproduce a kindred work.

Producing Original Kindred Works from analysis of a model is a process that requires one to determine the musical DNA of one given piece, and then to combine it with DNA of one's own. Not to simply find inspiration not from another composer’s thematic ideas, but to draw from a mish mash of archetypal, interstitial, semiotic, memetic and bio-musicological microstructures (audio units smaller than a motif) inherent in what we define as the model.

And then once identified, to synthesize these ‘structures’ with one’s own unique content and concepts, so that the result is in fact a wholly original work, derivative only in so far as one may say, they share the same style or ‘parent’ creative, that one piece was the inspiration for another, and confidently leave it at that.

By using terms like 'mish mash' and 'parent', I mean to imply that a kindred work is never composed via the asexual replication of source material, but by combining bio-memetic material from two different and unrelated sources, and then allowing for intelligent design and development.

A man and woman meet and form a child. Similarly, one composer or artist assimilates another composer’s or artist's ideas and yields not a copy but a wholly unique and separate work.

Afterwards we do not say a child (assuming it is not an unauthorized clone) is ‘a rip’ or ‘ripped off’ from either parent. More correctly we recognize that although both works, parent and child, are created from the same basic, elementary particles, that the child is capable of being as wholly original unto itself as its parent/s.

So, when faced with a temp track, what is it that we look for in our musical analysis?

A classical theorist might examine chord progression and melodic direction. But that kind of surface analysis can only ever yield a reproduction. Our purpose is different, not to appropriate a well executed concept in order to create a parallel work, but rather to create another original work that produces a parallel feeling. And in order to do that, our first task will be to identify a given work’s artistic and sonic DNA so that we might then combine it with our own, and thereby fulfill both a client's commission and yield our own contributions to the repertoire, and perhaps in the process also produce a work that will inspire someone else to make another piece of music.

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Photo Collage by Terry O'Gara.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Synonym, Metaphor and Inflection in Music

Recently I've suggested a new musical analysis I call Quantum Audio, which depending one's perspective, can resemble both genetic information and the search for behavioral analysis of sub atomic particles. Either way, Quantum Audio refers to the identification and analysis of small sonic elements, which when artfully combined can be said to be the building blocks of effective musical memes and signifiers.

Two major particles I listen for in musical works are Sonic Synonyms and Musical Metaphors. These are sounds embedded with meaning, or which trigger a common reaction in a given demographic.

Why does thunder, for instance, inspire fear? Indeed, what of sounds for which there is no human performer, only a natural act? A million ways for thunder to clap, and yet each one sends you running for cover. Is this reaction spontaneous, triggered by a certain range of frequencies, or is it the combined result of volume and perception of proximity? Or is our reaction triggered by other variables known or unknown?

And is the reaction genuinely spontaneous, culturally learned, or is it the result of instinctual programming. In short, has a physical pattern triggered a biological pattern, and is there a way to deconstruct this cognitive activity so that we might later reproduce our patterning which sound little like the source but trigger a similar reaction, as a means to deliver data rich audio? For now, it’s not important to know the real answer, or even if there is an answer, but it is important to consider the question.

Actually I think that most adept musicians understand ‘thunder’. The proof being that many a musician can create a facsimile of the sound on his or her given musical instrument. But in addition to mimicry, can we actually identify those sonic particles which whether separately or together produce the thunderous effect. In this manner, we might skim one effect from the other; power from fear for instance. The result being identifiable, isolated components we can integrate the effect in our own musical designs, much the same way we now layer one voice over another.

Of course, we already do this to some degree; for instance:

What makes one ascending string line sound majestic and another feel embedded with dread, although both might share the same sequence of notes in the same key?

As a young producer one of my first assignments was to serve in the capacity of line producer for the production of the Columbia Pictures audio logo. At the time, it struck me how this beautiful and grand work, conceived to produce anticipation in the audience for a forthcoming entertainment, might well teeter from anticipation to suspense, if only the tempo was pushed a few clicks forward, and the strings agitated by a degree.

I’ve heard that the Chinese language has many words or phrases that seem identical but in fact can mean different things depending on inflection alone. And of course, the same can be said about music.

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Photo Collage by Terry O'Gara.